“The Doctrine Of God” — Reviewing John C. Peckham’s Latest Book

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Published:
November 14, 2019

There are at least two recurrent motives under which we postpone, and even overlook, the possibility of reshaping our understanding of God. First, because it’s certainly not the easiest of human endeavours. When we try to know God better, we’re immediately confronted with the complexity of cross-correlated issues involving, on one side, God and the mystery that surrounds His Being and Actions, and on the other side the insurmountable limits of human understanding. Second, because we often conclude that complication in our spiritual journey can’t be attributed to God or the image we have of Him, it must instead be linked to our human limitations. The logical conclusion then, of all this reasoning, is that we are certainly the problem, not God.

Consequently the “Anthropology of God”, not “Theology of God”, needs to be assessed, corrected and refined. Concerning God, it’s supposedly true that all is settled forever – particularly if we think our ideas on Him are based in the Bible. And precisely because He is a Bible-based God, then once we got Him “right”, that understanding will always be right. But in this rapid and superficial conclusion are hidden two flawed presuppositions. First, the pretension to have correctly understood the whole Bible. Second, the firm conviction that the Bible tells everything about God. On one hand we put ourselves above the Bible and on the other hand we place the Bible above God himself. These are two typical protestant impairments and risks. For this reason, today’s Protestant “Pragmatic-Reductive Bibliocentrism” and its implicit correlate “Religious-Efficient Anthropocentrism”, are two primary mechanisms which often prevent we Adventists to update the understanding and image we have of God.

The paradox is that this way of doing theology keeps shaping our faith experience and determining the trend, nature and rhythm of our religious life and behaviour. This pragmatism of faith easily ends up compromising and deforming the development of faith itself, a development that should always presuppose a provisional understanding of God. Every theology in general, and any Theology of God in particular, is and always should be a “Theologia Viatorum” (Theology on the way). The fact that God blesses and answers us at the moment of our baptism or our “first-love religious experience” doesn’t mean that all our ideas of God are necessarily correct. God accepts and blesses us often in spite of the various wrong ideas we have of Him. Our ideas on God, individually and as a community, are extremely precious and necessary because only through them do we reach God. But they are not God, thus are not infallible and even less, sacred. Particularly because our ideas of God are supposedly based on the Bible, they need to be continually assessed and updated.

These thoughts are an extension of the persuasive message of John C. Peckham’s latest book The Doctrine of God. Introducing the Big Questions (T&T Clark, 2019). Peckham’s book is helpful because it reminds us that the primary role of any theology is two-dimensional, and its implicit and beneficial tension is difficult to preserve and keep alive. On one dimension there is theology only when we dare to “Think God”. This represents the pro-active and courageous attitude of a healthy theology. One that does not avoid, postpone or simply repeat, but rather that which dares to “Think God” anew. But on the other dimension there is theology only when we renounce the idea that we can actually think about God exhaustively. This represents the pro-contemplative, humble and dialogical attitude of a healthy theology. In other words, we can deform theology “by deficit” when we don’t think about God often enough, or “by excess” when we believe what we think about God is always right.

Three Helpful Contributions of the Book

1) This is a “pedagogical and formative” book on the Doctrine of God. It’s pedagogical for the method it uses. The information is gradual, sequential and organized. Without being exhaustive this text is nevertheless complete enough to perceive the important nodes and major challenges of the past and present concerning the Doctrine of God. But the pedagogical dimension is also perceived in the language used. The descriptions are always clear, condensed and essential without becoming trivial and schematic. And they are also always traced back to the same words of the authors quoted. Finally the book is pedagogical for its organization, which includes additional sections for complementary “study questions”, “suggestions for further reading” and a selected bibliography of the past and present, with a particular focus on contemporary sources.

2) This book offers a “synoptic description” of the Doctrine of God developed through history up until now. There is an analytical synopsis and theological definition of the main categories implied in the study of God, such as “divine perfection”, “necessity”, “pure aseity”, “self-sufficiency”, “strict simplicity”, “eternity”, “immutability”, “impassibility”, “omnipotence” and “omniscience”. It also offers a helpful synthetic synopsis of the main positions taken by various authors with reference to the previous categories, dividing them into three big groups. First, “Classical Christian Theism” which maintains an unqualified Creator-creature distinction, and whose main characteristic is certainly the affirmation of God’s timeless Eternity and the consequent absolutization and hardening of God’s attributes. Second, “Modified Classical Christian Theism” a theological correction which consists of affirming God’s involvement in Time, and the correspondent mitigation of God’s attributes without compromising God’s complete omniscience and omnipotence over all creatures, times and places. Here God appears more dialogical with humankind but always acts according to his sovereign Knowledge and Will. Third, “Revised Classical Christian Theism” which goes a bit further in mitigating and even limiting God’s attributes in making them really relational to the world and to humanity. God’s knowledge here is limited by time and God’s power is limited by the choices and actions of his creatures. Within these three groups there still exists a vast range of differentiated positions and assumptions which must not be overlooked.

3) This book also articulates a “balanced endeavor of theological ‘aggiornamento’ (update)”. It starts with the selection of six classical topics on the Doctrine of God but, while using the classical categories, nevertheless makes their actuality and religious relevance through contemporary wording and expressions: God’s Emotions, Temporal Openness, Dialogical Knowledge, Inter-activity, Emphatic Goodness and Differentiated Personality. Subsequently the book elaborates a reflection on the biblical data in accordance with the topic, avoiding, on one side the dispersion of heterogeneous multiple-quotations, and on the other side avoiding the typical Adventist temptation of attributing to the Bible a monolithic view. Peckham’s mature hermeneutic approach to the Bible doesn’t take the material as “proof texts” but as the dynamism of their theological orientation. But the most important theological contribution of the book is the implicit acknowledgment of the legitimate plurality of views of God within the Bible itself, as well as outside the Bible in the broad religious and theological Christian scenario, which would include the Adventist world. And the correlate conclusion of this acknowledgment is the necessary complementary dialogical attitude of any theology (including Adventist theology). Any isolated theology is wrong, not because it’s necessarily false, but because even if true it is necessarily partial.

Three Critical Considerations of the Book

How seriously does Peckham consider the dialogical attitude he implicitly presupposes as necessary to the theological endeavor? Formally he does; substantially it is less evident. For the Doctrine of God he quotes and dialogues with the various schools and authors. But Peckham is more descriptive than prescriptive to the point that it becomes difficult to perceive his own position. This gives the impression that the book is inclusive and dialogical. But actually it is not that much. And this depends on Peckham’s main theological structure and horizon. In fact his “Canonical Theology” perspective tends structurally on one side to overestimate the biblical contribution and on the other side to underestimate the relevance of extra-biblical socio-cultural reality. He extends a close and self-referential “Sola Scriptura” paradigm that he terms “Canonical”, from the “Bible” to “Theology”, eventually building up a self-referential theology. Actually, for the question of God he completely overlooks the fact that the psychological, ecclesiological and socio-cultural components may be more determinant in shaping our image of God. And also that our supposedly direct and objectively biblical and theological reflections are, since the very beginning, mediated by three extra-biblical elements. I’ll briefly describe each of them.

1) The “psychological component” in our understanding of God, as for instance described by the psychoanalyst Anna-Maria Rizzuto, is antecedent to any rational, ethical or theological orientation. Utilizing both clinical material and theoretical insights from the works of Freud, Erikson, Fairbairn and Winnicott, Rizzo examines the origin, development and use of our God images. These are highly personalized and idiosyncratic representations of God derived from our object relations, our evolving self-representations and our environmental beliefs. Once formed, such complex representations of God cannot be made to disappear; they can only be repressed, sublimated or re-oriented. These God images accompany us our whole life and influence and somewhat pre-determine our theological and doctrinal options about God.

2) The “ecclesiological component” in our understanding of God is much more determinant than what we usually believe it is. It too-often tends to firmly decide our reading of the Bible, our theology and even our personal religious imagination of God. At a certain point our image of God gets fused with the confessional image of the God of our Church. This overlapping is inevitable, and perhaps even necessary and helpful. But when it becomes a total and irreversible fusion which doesn’t allow us to differentiate between what is confessional and what is the reality of God Himself, then we incur a process of ideologization and idolatry. And the confessional God of Adventism is shaped in the image of a pragmatic, rational and coherent God that precedes our reading of the Bible. And then our reading just confirms and frames it.

3) The impact of the “socio-cultural component” in our understanding of God is even more drastic because it goes beyond our control and precedes our awareness. Both our mother-tongue (English, Spanish, etc.) and our native socio-cultural context, precedes the personal use we can make of them. And socio-culturally speaking, the pre-modern understanding of God as “Supreme Being” presupposed a stable world. But we have substituted a modern and post-modern understanding of God as “Absolute Subject” which presupposes a moving and changing world. And the various and even opposite theological options of God-understanding tend to be just expressions of this main cultural orientation.

Peckham’s theological endeavor is too dependent on an objective, rational and biblical paradigm. And this book is proof. It compels him to move almost exclusively in the dimension of “Truth”. But even theologically speaking what is “True” can paradoxically and easily become destructive and alienating. We have abundant historical evidences for that. A noble and wise theology must also learn to be “Healthy”. And in order to become “Healthy” we need to include subjective, anthropological, sociological and cultural elements in our theology, and particularly develop empathy and attention for what is outside the Bible.

 

Hanz Gutierrez is a Peruvian theologian, philosopher, and physician. Currently, he is Chair of the Systematic Theology Department at the Italian Adventist Theological Faculty of “Villa Aurora” and director of the CECSUR (Cultural Center for Human and Religious Sciences) in Florence, Italy.

Previous Spectrum columns by Hanz Gutierrez can be found at: https://spectrummagazine.org/author/hanz-gutierrez

Book cover image courtesy of T&T Clark.

 

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